Northern Ethiopia: Traveling Through Beauty, Back in Time

Palaces in Gonder
Palaces in Gonder

Northern Ethiopia: Traveling Through Beauty, Back in Time

By Kent E St John

If you have any preconceived notions from past reading or from visiting the African continent, don’t apply them to Northern Ethiopia. There will be bits and pieces that fit, but Northern Ethiopia defies plug-in comparisons.

Much of that is due to the mixture of African, Judaic and Egyptian influences. Ethiopia, against all odds, even managed to avoid colonization in the 19th century by zealous Europeans. The Italians did their best during their invasion of the country in 1935.

It is in what is known as the Abyssinian Highlands where much of Ethiopian culture took root and practices that run back centuries are still very much in evidence today. The remains of cities of various empires lay splayed out and ancient rock-hewn churches still hold their mystique; Ethiopia’s version of Christianity insures it.

During my trip to Northern Ethiopia all my senses played a part; that is perhaps what a trip there does, reopens deadened or hidden emotions.

On the Shore of Lake Tana

Rowboats on Lake Tana
Rowboats on Lake Tana

The lake spreads before me a color not quite in the Crayola color box. The hotel Kuriftu’s rooms are done up in a style that makes one feel as if it is hewn from the rock, too; the porch has a massive fireplace and the built-in divan is perfect. It was my favorite lodging during my journey. The fact that it is located in Bahir Dar, one of Ethiopia’s prettiest cities, is a major bonus.

The islands spread out before me house monasteries that have been a part of Christianity predating most European orders. The need for safety from heathen raiders made the islands perfect places to nurture a religion that was fraught with danger, long before it reached Rome.

It is from Lake Tana that the Blue Nile springs, and the 20-mile trip to the falls is a good one, if the hydro plant built nearby hasn’t drained the water from the heights.

I found the time better spent walking through the palm-lined boulevards. Best of all, though, is to charter a boat and head to the monasteries on the Lake’s islands. Many still have artworks dating from early Christian days and are still today centers that serve their original purpose.

On some islands females, whether human or animal, aren’t allowed, so check with your guide before going. Best advice is to be lakeside when the sun sets with a cold bottle of St. George beer and the storks flying in formation. The city has all of the necessities needed that you may not find later in Northern Ethiopia, so stock up.

Gonder, a Place to Wonder

It has a Camelot feel because of the walled-in royal palaces centered in the city, mostly from the 17th century, a reminder that through the centuries Ethiopia has remained independent. It is a city that architecturally has everything from hovel to high rise, granted not much above six stories.

Winding streets up and down hillsides make Gonder a challenge, but hidden views startle. The country’s best known ecclesiastic artwork can be found at the Debre Berhan Selassie Church: 104 cherub angels grace the ceiling each with its own smile, think Mona Lisa times 104. The Italians also left architectural footprints.

I took the road from Bahir Dar to Gonder; the rest of my trip was far flung, via Ethiopian Airlines. Even at the best hotel in the city — state-owned Goha Hotel of Gonder — a storm shut the power off. However, it only added to the beauty of the town below. The lightning was of Biblical proportions; in Ethiopia one starts to believe in strange happenings.

Broken stela in Axum
Broken stela in Axum

I Say Axum you Say Aksum

For at least 5000 years, monoliths have been used in Northern Africa. Axum has the biggest and best, billboards proclaiming the greatness the rulers, the Broadway of the ancient world. Though geographically it is now far far off Broadway, it is one of the UNESCO World Heritage treasuresm, and it deserves the honor.

Take a turn down a street and it is back to Biblical times; the chances of getting run down by a donkey far outweigh getting hit by a car. The Aksumite Kingdoms thrived well before Christ and well after. Today, you’re back in time; however, it’s a welcome feeling.

The stelae, large monoliths, stand just as they have for centuries, except for one that collapsed during its building; it is left just where it fell. Unlike many discovered ancient cities, much still lies covered. An estimated 85% of ancient Axum is still buried.

That said, however, the chance to explore tombs, temples and ruins could keep you hopping for days; no need for costumed guides, the same robed clothing has remained, and this is no tour bus stop for day-tripping tourists. The city is still a pilgrimage and sacred place for the Ethiopian Christian religion, and the call to worship is heard many times a day.

Forget What you Learned from Indiana Jones

The home of the Ark of the Covenant
The home of the Ark of the Covenant

In Axum it is said that the Ark of the Covenant exists in the compound of St. Mary of Zion. There is only one person that has access to the treasure, and he spends his whole life locked up in the small chapel with the Ark; not even the highest church leaders are allowed to view it.

Food and water are delivered, but a locked gate separates him from the rest of the world. His successor will come to him in a dream. The chosen one will then take his place upon his death. The service in the main Cathedral is open to the public and should not be missed. Do not expect a Christian ceremony that will be familiar; the pageantry is amazing.

Just outside Axum are the ruins of what is said to be The Queen of Sheba’s palace. According to the Kebra Negast (Ethiopia’s national epic) Sheba went to visit the wise King Solomon and while there was promised that if she took nothing from him he would take nothing from her.

The wise Solomon served her a very spicy dinner that caused her to reach for the wine left by her bed later that night. In return for taking that glass Solomon took her, and Sheba returned to Axum with a son, the future King Menelik.

On a later visit to his father in Jerusalem, Menelik slipped off with the Ark of the Covenant, the reason it is in Axum today.

Lalibela, Africa’s Petra

I flew Ethiopian Airlines to the last stop on my tour of Northern Ethiopia, a wise move due to its remoteness. That, however, is what made Lalibela my favorite stop. Indeed even today there are no asphalt roads that will take you there.

One of the many churches carved from rock in the small village of Lalibela, Ethiopia
One of the many churches carved from rock in the Lalibela. Photo by Kent St. John.

There was no longer any pretense to understanding all I’d seen. This remote town in the rugged Lasta Mountains is immersion into a world of deep faith and a lifestyle not experienced by many.

Throughout the village are eleven medieval rock churches hewn from the rock, reached by dimly lit passageways and grottos hidden to the eye. On every twist and turn you will run into traditional priests and monks, moving in ghostly shadows; the reverberations of chants float rock-walled chambers.

Incense fills the air and uneven steps make exploration a challenge. It is thought that King Lalibela wanted to create a New Jerusalem in Africa far from the rise of Muslim usurpers.

It is said that it took 40,000 workers to build these massive works. The Ethiopians claim that most of the work was done by angels during the nighttime hours. After seeing the work, I believe a bit of both; that will happen often to a traveler to North Ethiopia.

One morning I met my mule and the guide who took me up a far mountain peak to visit a monastery called Ashetan Maryam. The monks believe the heights keep them closer to heaven; it felt like it. The surrounding scenery is a reminder of how vast the area is.

One thing is for certain, my mule was a saint and in Ethiopia anything is possible. Perhaps the St. George beer may be holy water, even if served warm due to the shut down of electricity. The human spirit is powerful, and Northern Ethiopia will test yours daily. Read more…

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